Breaking the fifth wall: creating theatre on a telepresence stage

Steve Dixon, Paul Sermon, Sita Popat-Taylor

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapterpeer-review


In response to lockdowns and safe distancing, the Telepresence Stage research project (2021-22) is developing effective, affordable approaches to connecting theatre and dance performers from their separate homes and placing them together within virtual sets online. Combining videoconference and chromakey technologies with virtual scenography, the performers are freed from Zoom-style walled boxes and are able to physically interact, including (virtually) hugging, kissing or fighting one another. The theatrical tradition of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ to address the audience reaches another level, with the actors seemingly breaking a fifth wall, of space and time.
The researchers are working with eight UK theatre/dance companies to develop new online forms of performance, to test and develop approaches using a range of proprietary systems and bespoke online video encoder/decoder laboratory platforms and 3D scenography environments, and to undertake technical and creative experiments towards proof-of-concept testing and prototyping.
The research findings are analysed from technological and artistic, as well as phenomenological perspectives, including considering issues of telepresence intimacy, empathy, proxemics, third-person perspectives, and the uncanny. Case studies draw on the verbatim reflections of the performers and directors and offer insights into the unique joys but equally the challenges of working on a telepresence stage.
The chapter argues and demonstrates how the project not only has a profound effect on the resident companies, but is of lasting value and impact for the creative industries. The use of immersive virtual scenographies has proven a significant spur to creativity, taking theatre troupes into whole new realms of imagination and ideas. Many companies have reflected on the platform’s transformative potentials, including creating sequences and illusions that would be impossible in live theatre, and of experiencing a particular sense of freedom or playfulness that provided impetus to change artistic direction. The experiments undertaken herald new creative modalities, ways of working and performance delivery that will long outlive the pandemic.
This is not least due to the way in which COVID-19 has changed working patterns across all industry sectors. Many of these will last, including more working from home, since the experience has shown the benefits—not only is it convenient for people and saves costs (from travel to office space) and the environment, but it works. The Telepresence Stage experiments demonstrate the same for the theatre and dance industries—these platforms and techniques work, and highly effectively, enabling intimate and immersive experiences across distances. Performers within the same city can devise, rehearse and perform together from their homes, but perhaps more significantly, the techniques enable ambitious cross-border collaborations. One of the projects, Telematic Quarantine, conjoined individuals and groups from the UK, Singapore, Australia and Brazil in a spontaneously improvised yet vividly memorable performance with participants needing no more than a laptop, a Skype connection and a large green cloth. The project provides a scalable Telepresence Stage for global connectivity. It catalyses originality and innovation, and opens bold new vistas and international collaborative opportunities for the performance industries.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Pandemic and Beyond
Subtitle of host publicationBridging Distance in the Creative Industries
EditorsPascale Aebischer, Rachael Nicholas
Place of PublicationManchester
PublisherManchester University Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9781526172402
Publication statusPublished - 21 May 2024

Publication series

NameThe Pandemic and Beyond
PublisherCambridge University Press

Bibliographical note

Not yet published


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